This is Water
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the heck is water?’”
This is how David Foster Wallace, my favorite writer, began his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College (dramatized in this beautiful short film). It’s a parable, in his words, about how “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
Let’s turn to you, the intrepid, college-bound student who’s reading this blog in order to procrastinate completing the Common App. The Common App is a tedious thing (although things would be way more annoying without it), and most people seem to espouse their frustration with it in terms of its tedium. Working on the Common App is boring.
The problem is, working on the Common App is also stunningly important. Because finishing it is to take a huge step toward deciding where you’re going to spend the next four years of your life, which memories you’ll be able to tell your children and grandchildren, which lifelong friends you’re going to make, and what knowledge will propel you into the future.
That’s one of those kind of huge and obvious realities that nobody talks about. The Common App is water.
I kind of have it worse. Much of what I do is a high-risk situation. If I do badly on a paper, I might fail a class and have to retake it, which will mess up my credits further down the road and prevent me from doing things that I want to do (like write an honor’s thesis). If I print an inaccurate or poorly-researched article in The Scarlet, people will get mad at me and I will lose friends and credibility. And if I don’t learn as much as I possibly can in classes like Contemporary Literary Theory or Complexities of Urban Schooling, I won’t learn the information I need to do well in job applications and interviews in the future. There’s a lot riding on every moment, every paper, every assignment.
Most people in college operate under this premise. This isn’t exclusive to Clark, it’s true of any institution you go to. No matter where you go, you’ll want to make (and keep) friends, the work will be hard, and unemployment will be at 7.3% (ok that one might be better or worse depending on stuff, but you get the idea).
So how do we all deal with it? Lots of different ways. I take a lot of naps. I’m in two music classes where I get to blow off some energy on the bass. I spend a lot of time with my friends. A lot of time.
I find shelter in the community.
Because we’re all doing these things together, and when we complain about having to write long papers, we’re not really complaining about the actual labor that goes into creating those papers, but the scary consequences that come with doing badly, although we never say it.
This doesn’t mean we’re ignoring it. We’re aware of it. (If I wasn’t, this blog post sure wouldn’t exist.) It just means that we choose to focus on other things. We choose to focus on jokes that we tell each other, and when our next “Wings and Die Hard” night is, and we focus on the songs that we play on acoustic guitars until the RAs knock on the door and tell us we’re being too loud.
And some nights we sit in the Academic Commons, typing away on separate keyboards, sipping on coffee from Jazzman’s, propelled by that strange motivational combination of caffeine, nervousness, and a lot of intellectual fervor. And every time I’m sitting there, tired and pushing myself to just get it done, I’m glad that I have those friends around me. Because even though we don’t talk about the water much, having them there with me keeps it nice and warm.